Senate debates

Tuesday, 31 August 2021

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers


3:02 pm

Photo of Kristina KeneallyKristina Keneally (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Services (Senator Colbeck) to questions without notice asked by Senators Sheldon, O’Neill, McCarthy and Keneally today relating to the COVID-19 vaccination program.

The situation in New South Wales today is deeply concerning. Our hospital system is groaning under the weight of the latest COVID outbreak, and there is no relief in sight. Mr Morrison had two jobs this year: to roll out vaccines and to fix the leaky quarantine system. He has monumentally failed at both, and it's Australians and their families that are left to suffer.

We have seen, in other countries, what it looks like when a hospital system is overwhelmed by COVID. Doctors and nurses struggle to care for the skyrocketing numbers of patients requiring intensive care. They're ultimately forced to choose which patients receive life-saving treatment. Effectively, they must choose who lives and who dies. This doesn't just impact those who have COVID-19; it affects anyone suffering from life-threatening illness and injury, as the finite resources of their healthcare system are stretched to the breaking point. It is a fate that is too difficult to contemplate for my home state, yet we are seeing the tell-tale signs of a system on the brink of disaster.

Last week, Westmead Hospital and Blacktown hospital stopped accepting COVID patients, forcing paramedics to ramp up with patients on board. It has been reported that overworked Sydney ICU nurses are now sedating patients to manage what they describe as 'hellhole conditions'. Another 1,164 cases in the state today will only add to this strain.

We are 18 months into this pandemic. We are six months into this vaccine rollout, and yet it's never looked more dire. Never has this minister looked so out of touch. Everything, according to him, is going just fine. He is patting himself on the back for failing to meet the targets the government set, leaving New South Wales, Indigenous people, and aged-care workers behind—leaving Australians behind.

Remember, this Prime Minister claimed that the vaccine rollout wasn't a race. Look where we are now. As usual with Mr Morrison, it's always somebody else's fault. Make no mistake: what we are seeing in New South Wales today is the direct result of the failures of the Morrison government. A proper hotel quarantine system would mean that we didn't have leakages. Hotels are for tourists. They are not for quarantine. Under Mr Morrison, we have seen 27 leakages which have led to illness and death across the country. The outbreak that we are currently experiencing in New South Wales was something that Jane Halton warned the Prime Minister about last year—the transport system causing a leak in the quarantine system.

By the way, the 27 leakages I am talking about don't even include the Ruby Princess debacle, which we heard the Inspector-General of Biosecurity say this week was a failure of federal officials—agriculture department officials—who didn't check the traveller-with-illness checklist, didn't review the ship's medical logs and didn't warn New South Wales Health that COVID was rampant on the Ruby Princess. That means they failed to stop the one boat that mattered.

If we had a proper vaccine rollout, we'd have a safe and speedy rollout of jabs in arms. Remember, four million of us were supposed to be vaccinated by May. All of us were supposed to be vaccinated by October. That's not going to happen. It is always too little, too late. It is vulnerable communities that are being left behind. We are now hearing doctors, like Dr Peter Malouf in New South Wales, labelling the vaccine rollout in Indigenous communities a 'chaotic crisis'. The Morrison government's response to COVID-19 must be seen as one of the most catastrophic public policy failures of any government in the history of our nation. We have the New South Wales minister Brad Hazzard pointing the finger at the federal government. We have the New South Wales Deputy Premier, John Barilaro, pointing the finger at the failures of the Morrison government. The problem we have here is not that people have vaccine hesitancy; it's just that we have a Prime Minister who has apathy—he's too little, too late. It's always somebody else's fault, and it's the Australian people who are being left behind to suffer the consequences.

3:07 pm

Photo of Matthew CanavanMatthew Canavan (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What we have just seen from the deputy leader of the opposition in this place shows exactly why the Labor Party lack the credentials to lead this country. The panicked pantomime that we just saw from Senator Keneally is exactly what the Australian people do not want now, at a time of difficulty and crisis. This is a very difficult time for our country. It's a very difficult time for the world, to be tackling a pandemic. But what people want in a pandemic is not panic; they want calm. What people need during a pandemic is not gross exaggeration; they want us to be steely and stoic, deal with the situation and come up with solutions.

Senator Keneally and the other Labor senators today quoted from the New South Wales government extensively in their questions, but they failed to quote the Premier on the very topic that Senator Keneally just spent her time talking about. Senator Keneally is in this place spreading panic through our land, suggesting that somehow our hospitals may within hours or within days be completely overcrowded and have no ability to take people. That is completely untrue, and, if she were seriously looking at the statements from the New South Wales government, she would know it is untrue. But she has been cherrypicking her statements for political interest, rather than providing the professional, calm leadership that is required at a time like this.

The Premier of New South Wales, Premier Berejiklian, was quoted just the other day—this was an article from just four days ago—as saying:

We have been ready for additional ICU patients for a long time … We have always had those contingency plans, but what is confronting for us is when you have a network that has great staff, is seeing more patients, it does stretch things and it does mean things are done differently.

That's exactly what the Australian people need: calm leadership, saying, 'We will respond to this. We will tackle it.' I don't know if Senator Keneally has spoken to her own local health authorities. I've been in constant contact with mine in Central Queensland since the start of this pandemic, and I know that they expanded their ICU capabilities very early on. They've always had plans in place to do that. In fact, there was a detailed paper published in The Medical Journal of Australia last year which showed the ability of our great health system, our fantastic health system, to respond. In that paper, a variety of professionals went across the country, and I believe they spoke to 191 ICU units across Australia. At the start of the pandemic, we had 2,378 intensive care beds. What this study found was that, very quickly, we could add another 4,258 intensive care beds if required, because we have a great health system full of great health professionals. I think Senator Keneally does our health professionals a great disservice when she seems to question their ability to respond. I have great faith in them.

What we need to focus on now is coming up with the solutions to support our health professionals and support Australians in this pandemic, not unnecessarily panic everybody throughout the land and further contribute to the stress and strain that is on many Australians, especially those going through lockdown right now. We would, of course, all love to return to a place where we have zero COVID cases—it was wonderful; it was great—but we do live in the real world here, and it seems to me that Senator Keneally and her colleagues on the Labor side want to be the government of Disneyland, not the government of Australia. The only place where zero COVID cases will exist now is in a fantasy land, in a Disneyland. We are not going back to that state of affairs. That is the reality. In fact, even the Victorian Premier today recognised that when he said that he will look at easing restrictions even before Victoria gets back to zero cases. Apparently, in the next few days he will outline some steps where, even with positive cases, restrictions will be eased. That is a sensible approach.

The Labor Party are playing catch-up. They are holding onto a fantasy that we can no longer deliver. What our job should be, as leaders, as people in this country in positions of authority, is to level with the Australian people and tell them the truth, not spread panic and fairytales that will never be able to be implemented. This government, along with the state and territory governments, is responding professionally to this crisis. We need to have a map out of this so we can let people out of their homes, let people get back to work, and deal with this pandemic in the best way we can, with the wonderful health system we have in this nation.

3:13 pm

Photo of Jenny McAllisterJenny McAllister (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Cabinet Secretary) Share this | | Hansard source

When Mr Morrison decided to take a gamble on hotel quarantine and vaccines last year, he set in place a series of events that led us to exactly where we are today, and it didn't have to be this way. A Prime Minister who was more interested in leading rather than reducing vectors of political exposure would have actually fixed our quarantine system and would have taken responsibility for securing more types and greater numbers of vaccines. Instead, we have a Prime Minister who found time to research his family tree during a trip overseas, while thousands of Australians remained stranded with no way home. The consequences of Mr Morrison's decisions are becoming clearer by the day. In the last 48 hours, we have had significant numbers of health personnel speaking out, despite the fact that their employment contracts actually make this personally risky for them. They have chosen to speak out about the pressures they are under and about their fears for the health system. These are people on the front line of the pandemic and the government should listen to them.

Senator Canavan is right—a government should level with its people. Nothing about the current approach suggests to me that the government is levelling with its people, because it's not willing to engage with the questions that are being raised from the very people whose daily responsibility is to protect and care for sick people in New South Wales.

Nurses, paramedics and doctors are blowing the whistle on the challenges ahead. A Sydney nurse said this:

We are exhausted. Last night was brutal. We literally hit capacity … Just holding on. The patients are air-hungry, starving for breath …We simply don't have enough of us. We are on the edge now …We have been trying to warn the government for a year.

The union that represents these workers has said it's becoming increasingly concerned that Australia's public hospitals will not be able to cope with the growing demand if we allow COVID to take hold before we're truly prepared. And that's the key, isn't it? Yes, we want to get out of lockdown, but it needs to be safe, and a safe emergence from this pandemic requires careful planning and consideration.

Yesterday we heard the tragic news of the first Indigenous COVID death in Australia, a 50-year-old, a much-loved grand-uncle. He got to see his grandchild just once. He wasn't vaccinated. Aboriginal health services workers, advocates and community members have been warning the government for months and months that this was a possibility, but these warnings have been ignored. The New South Wales Deputy Premier, Mr Barilaro, said:

We know that the federal government's vaccination program at the start of the year identified the Indigenous communities in part of the 1A rollout, and it hasn't occurred … and that's something that they lost attention on, and we know earlier in the year the rollout wasn't anywhere near where it needed to be.

The PM promised that First Nations communities would be fully vaccinated by winter, but the reality is that just eight per cent of First Nations people in western New South Wales are fully vaccinated.

It's time to take responsibility for that and to develop a plan to remedy it, because the government has bungled this vaccination rollout. We are a very long way from the 70 per cent threshold—or the 80 per cent threshold. Yes, people are looking for a safe pathway to resume something like normal life; people are desperate for it. But it all depends on having a serious plan to manage the pandemic. Frankly, Mr Morrison has bungled every opportunity presented to him to lead through this pandemic. He stood by while the crisis raged through nursing homes in Victoria—a sector that is regulated and controlled by the Commonwealth—refusing to take responsibility, shunting responsibility onto the state government. He failed to procure enough vaccines and a diverse range of contracts. That left the Australian community dangerously exposed to delta, with less than a quarter of Australians fully vaccinated when the second wave brutally started sweeping through our communities.

I see absolutely no sign that he's now ready to roll up his sleeves and tackle this next crisis. What he would prefer, of course, as always, is a political approach—just pick fights with state premiers, distract, divert and wait until the news cycle moves on. Well, a pandemic doesn't move on. And real leaders do offer calm, considered leadership. That involves talking to people, not harassing them and nitpicking. It involves actually engaging the state premiers to make this federation pandemic-ready. (Time expired)

3:18 pm

Photo of Gerard RennickGerard Rennick (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm glad to rise today to speak on this motion to take note of answers. In particular, I'd like to just remind Senator Keneally of the boats, because, when the Labor Party was last in power, over 1,200 people died at sea in the boats by something that was totally brought on by the Labor Party. Compare that with the number of people who died with COVID, which is only just past 1,000, and a lot of those had co-morbidities. I can assure you that the Morrison government didn't design COVID, unlike the boat crisis that was designed by the Labor Party and was totally self-inflicted. So it's a bit rich for them to come in here and play games and accuse the Morrison government of causing deaths in a situation which was basically out of their control.

Australia has one of the lowest COVID death rates in the world, and we've actually got one of the lowest fatality rates in the world. It's worth noting that this year we've had fewer than 100 COVID deaths out of over 20,000 cases. That is a case fatality rate of 0.04 per cent, or fewer than four people out of every 1,000 cases. Compare that with the number of deaths in 2019, when Australia had 170,000 deaths out of 25 million people. That was a death rate of seven people out of 1,000.

The COVID fatality rate is just around half of the overall fatality rate.

Let's talk about the vaccine rollout. We've now basically got 86 per cent of over-70-year-olds first-dosed and over 63 per cent of over-70-year-olds second-dosed. I get a little bit sick and tired of hearing the Labor Party talk about AstraZeneca and Pfizer as though it's a competition. The fact of the matter is that last August—when, as Labor love to claim, we could've bought 40 million doses—the Pfizer vaccine hadn't even been approved for safety. It hadn't even been proved that it actually worked. It's a completely new technology.

Interestingly enough, the World Health Organization came out in September last year and said that it wouldn't be until mid-2021 that the Pfizer vaccine was going to be ready. Another point to note is that the Pfizer vaccine has to be refrigerated and stored at negative 70 degrees. The Morrison coalition government had to make a decision back then. They went with the AstraZeneca vaccine as its main supplier because they could get it produced here in Australia. They could get it produced here in Australia by none other than CSL. To remind people about the history of CSL, CSL used to be government owned. It was actually set up by the government in 1917 so that Australia would have its own—wait for it—vaccine supplies. What happened? The Labor Party sold CSL. In the time since, it has got into blood transfusion and a lot of other products, but its core business of vaccine production has gone by the wayside. For Labor to come in here and claim that we haven't got enough vaccines—they ought to look in the mirror, because the damage was done right back in 1992 by a bloke named Paul Keating and one of his great advisers, Bill Bowtell. He's out there running around being an expert on everything, yet he was one of the advisers to Keating who allowed CSL to be sold. The hypocrisy is astounding.

It should also be noted that the US didn't even export Pfizer. The first country it exported Pfizer to was Mexico, on 29 April. The USA was exporting very few Pfizer vaccines. What seems to be overlooked in all of this is that it's not that easy to just go and conjure 50-odd million Pfizer vaccines at the drop of a hat, keep them stored at negative 70 degrees and get them rolled out.

The vaccination program is well and truly on its way. It hasn't been helped by Queensland's Chief Health Officer, who's been there under a Labor government, who has been basically talking people out of getting the AstraZeneca vaccine. While she was saying this, she failed to disclose that her own husband used to consult to Pfizer. If that's not a conflict of interest I don't know what is. That type of behaviour—while we're trying to encourage vaccine rollouts—hasn't helped anyone. It's about time Labor got on board and started to work in the interests of the Australian people, rather than whingeing and wailing.

3:23 pm

Photo of Tony SheldonTony Sheldon (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] Well, that was quite mind-boggling. Quite clearly, when we first got into these vaccines there was a clear indication that it was a necessity to have a whole series of vaccines purchased on order so that, even with those that would fail and those that wouldn't follow through, we'd have enough for the Australian community. Of course, time has proven it. Epidemiologists told the government. Pfizer told the government, in direct conversations and indirect conversations. Yet the government has still failed to take responsibility for its mistake. This is not about looking backwards; I'm looking forwards. If they won't take responsibility for what they're doing wrong right now, how can people have the necessary confidence that this will be dealt with appropriately into the future?

Today we have another 1,164 new locally transmitted COVID-19 cases here in New South Wales. We have 871 in hospital and 143 in intensive care. People are suffering from the mental toll of months of lockdown, and small businesses are suffering dire economic hardship. It's important to remember that the reason we are in this situation is that the Prime Minister failed in his two most important jobs: to get the vaccine rollout right and to get a dedicated quarantine system up and running.

Of course, we saw with the Bondi outbreak, with the limo driver driving international flight crew, that there were not appropriate safeguards at our border. That is a federal government responsibility, yet we hear repeatedly from the government that they should not be held to account for the mistakes and failings they have made and the ones they continue to make.

The health system was already at breaking point before the Prime Minister's national plan, which, based on Doherty modelling, will put tens of thousands more Australians in hospital. There is no plan for how our medical system can handle that pressure and no serious plan to move forward. This rollout is quite clearly a failure, and the government needs to take responsibility. There's not enough Pfizer. There are delays. The New South Wales health minister made it clear when he blew the whistle on the silence of the federal government and their incompetence about Pfizer.

Of course, the moment of truth was Senator Colbeck's response to a quote from an experienced respiratory physician in Western Sydney. I'll repeat this because I hope those listening to the Senate will be as outraged as I am that this question was not answered. 'With the coming deluge of cases, it is possible that ambulances will not reach people suffering heart attacks or strokes as quickly as they should,' said a Western Sydney doctor. Quite clearly the government needs to take responsibility and be able to deal appropriately and in a quick way with the sorts of pressures that are applied to our health system at the moment.

You don't have to have too much of an imagination, because you have the government turning around saying, 'It's not a race.' You don't have to have too much of an imagination to know we're in a crisis. The government says, 'It's not a race.' You don't have to have too much imagination to know that we have so many people suffering from COVID and the effect on business. Of course, it wasn't a race! This government continues to try to distract people by saying that the failure is the opposition's, which is just ironic, by raising the government's mistruths and failures. That is absolutely ludicrous. Take responsibility. I know that the Prime Minister won't do it. I say to the ministers and the government: take responsibility.

New South Wales, along with those pressures on services, has seen staff shortages, hospitals reaching ICU capacity and increased sedation of ICU patients in order to manage the burgeoning workload in the New South Wales COVID system. And 60,000 aged-care workers still aren't vaccinated. They say, 'Don't be alarmed.' I wish they were more alarmed. I wish they actually thought it was a race. It is a race to vaccinate by the deadline 60,000 aged-care workers. The Health Services Union National President, Gerard Hayes, appropriately said that the aged-care royal commission found in March the sector was facing a staffing crisis that risked being exacerbated by the pandemic.

Question agreed to.